Thursday, April 16, 2009

We were liberators - Guardian

There is no talk of victory but my men and I fought to make a better place of Basra - and succeeded.

On 7 April 2003, 1 Para Battle Group entered Ad Dayr, north of Basra, on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab. It was a Saddam-regime stronghold and its defence by regime fighters had been expected. The fighters, however, had fled the night before and the battle group was welcomed into the town with open arms. There was no doubt in their minds that we had liberated them from tyranny.

I still have the photographs, taken by our embedded Press Association photographer, of women and children running towards us with their arms aloft and their faces bright with joy and relief. As the 20th Armoured Brigade, the last UK brigade to serve in Iraq, prepares to depart, we celebrate the courage and fortitude of the servicemen and women who have served in Iraq, in particular the 179 who died. At the same time, we must not forget the ordinary people of southern Iraq for whom we fought. General Rupert Smith coined the expression "war amongst the people", which neatly describes today's conflicts: we must consider the impact our actions had on the people of Basra.

For readers in Britain this may seem an odd sentiment but, as you affirm your views of the rights and wrongs of this conflict, you should not forget the reality of a 21st-century soldier's work. This is the 20th Armoured Brigade's third tour of Iraq, and some of our number have done four tours. In six years this means we have lived for at least 18 months among Iraqis and spent a further nine to 12 months preparing for the tours. We saw the good times immediately after the liberation (for those who dismiss the term, be assured that the Iraqi army brigade commanders with whom I work always correct me if I say invasion); we saw the ups and downs of fighting and reconstruction from 2004 through to 2007; and we have seen the peace - immature, admittedly, but growing - of 2008 and 2009.

We have lived and breathed Iraq, and its prospects concern us. We want to know that our blood and your treasure have not been wasted. Soldiers fight for their friends, their section and their regiment. Armies fight to achieve goals set by governments. But soldiers also want to know that the people among whom they fought have a better peace ahead of them.

Fifteen British brigades have served in southern Iraq. The 20th Armoured Brigade will bear witness to the better peace that lies ahead for Basrawis. We can tell our comrades that their efforts achieved a good result. We won't ever talk about victory - it's an outdated strategic concept anyway - but we will talk about success.

The Iraqi army we helped train, aided by the Iraqi police, provides security for Basra and its citizens. Of that, there can be no doubt. The police, currently being trained by American soldiers, improve steadily. Free and fair provincial elections were held in January in a secure environment without intimidation or fear. The old council, perceived not to have delivered the essential services people wanted, was voted out. A new council now sits. In this newly won stability, reconstruction gathers pace. These are the successes that your servicemen and women helped achieve. From these, Basrawis have a better peace and Basra is a better place for it.

It's not yet perfect and there will be hurdles in the way but, just as Colour Sergeant Pepper, about whom Audrey Gillan wrote in the Guardian this week, needed to check on an Iraqi family caught up in his August 2004 battle, our comrades can be reassured that Basrawis, liberated from tyranny in 2003, have a better peace ahead of them in 2009.

• Brigadier Tom Beckett is the commander of 20th Armoured Brigade and all British forces in Basra

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